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What do they need? Exploring the art of teaching vocal jazz improvisation.

The Problem

In September 2012, I was invited to teach a class of first year vocal jazz students at the University of Toronto. Up until this time, all first-year jazz students took a common course in jazz improvisation. The directors of the program recognized that vocalists have "different needs" than instrumental students, and asked me to design and teach a course suited to vocalists. Since this was the first time this course had been taught, much of the curriculum was developed on-the-fly, in response to the students' direct needs. More importantly, it served as a laboratory from which I was able to unpack the larger questions and problems posed by this deceptively complex question of vocalists' "different needs."

Research Methods

This article is informed by data collected from a variety of sources.

Written interviews with expert practitioners

* Jennifer Barnes, vocalist, faculty member at the University of North Texas

* Christine Duncan, vocalist, faculty member at the University of Toronto

* Peter Eldridge, vocalist/pianist, faculty member at the Manhattan School of Music and member of the New York Voices

* Kristin Korb, vocalist/bassist, private instructor

* Bob Stoloff, vocalist/multi-instrumentalist, Chair of Voice Studies, Instituto de Musica Contemporanea at Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador

* Michele Weir, vocalist/pianist, arranger, performer and clinician

Written interviews with students

My vocal improvisation class consisted of six first-year students: for the purpose of this article, they are named Amber, Bianca, Jade, Raven, Rose, and Violet. These students were given a written interview similar to the interview with the "experts," with some questions slightly modified for students instead of teachers.

Student practice journals

From January 2013 to April 2013, the above-mentioned students were asked to submit a regular practice journal. These findings were useful in particular to address the "what do vocalists need" question, as well as the problems inherent in practicing and studying vocal improvisation.

Text study of vocal jazz resources

Instrumental method books are too numerous to mention, but the available resources for vocalists are quite few. I performed a detailed analysis of several of the most common texts (please see references).

Self-observation as a vocal and instrumental improviser

This was of significant value. This article deals with much of my work as an academic and instructor: however, like most professionals, I am a continual student of my craft. This year, I focused my studies on piano and voice. I found that my approach to each was very different, and began to make observations and comparisons based on my approach to instrumental and vocal practice, documented in my own practice journal.

In jazz education, it is common to refer to the learning of jazz improvisation as learning the "jazz language." Language has vocabulary, rules of grammar and syntax, and linguistic conventions. The same could be said of the language of jazz, in particular the style of bebop. The clearly-defined grammar, syntax, and conventions make it relatively straightforward to teach and to evaluate. This article focuses on the more concrete facets of learning the language, rather than the subtleties of masterfully communicating in said language.

For the purposes of understanding the learning process, I have broken it down into three phases: conception, imprinting, and application. These three phases exist for both instrumental and vocal learning; however, the amount of time spent on each phase, and the method by which the language is learned, differs.


I define "conception" as the cognitive understanding of how the language works. This involves the following:

* theoretical aspects, such as harmony and chord-scale relationships

* absorbing melodic concepts such as phrase-types, melodic contour, intervallic understanding, et cetera.

* ear training and musicianship skills

Using the language analogy, this is the process of learning vocabulary, verb conjugation, and other basic building blocks of the language.


This is the stage where the language is ingrained "in the bones," through repetition and hours of practice. Most concepts at this stage are understood intellectually, and the challenge is in manifesting them on the instrument/voice, and developing regular access to the information on demand. This is largely a mechanical process, and is where most of the time "woodshedding" is spent.


At this stage, the information is understood mentally, and is available at the fingertips. The main thrust of this stage is the ability to access vocabulary at will, in real time. In the language analogy, the words are readily on-hand for use in everyday conversation.

Consider a single particular musical concept, such as learning the ins and outs of the diminished scale in improvisation. Using this model, the process could be illustrated as such:

Conception--understanding which scale fits under which chord; learning the notes of the scale; identifying places in a particular song or standard where that scale might fit. Hearing and recognizing that scale.

Imprinting--running the scale in all keys; learning patterns based on the scale; working out fingerings/positions in each key.

Application--"accessing the information" in real time by playing through a song, e.g. using the diminished scale ideas where appropriate, in a rehearsal or performance setting.


For instrumentalists and vocalists alike, conception involves learning the particular theory behind a musical idea. For the instrumentalist, understanding the theory behind the idea is of great importance, but the connection can easily be made with their instrument. Every note is associated with a particular physical manifestation on their instrument: a key, a position, a fingering, a fret. While a musical concept can be understood without the accompanying theory, it is, more often than not, helpful for the instrumentalist to understand it thusly.

This is where the first major difference lies between the instrumentalist and the vocalist. For a vocalist, their "instrument" is invisible. A vocalist has no clear connection between a particular pitch or interval, and a physical position for the voice. So how do they find it? They must find it through their ears: If a singer can't "hear it," or understand it aurally, they can't sing it.

Jennifer Barnes explains the situation as such:

   For a vocalist, the hardest part ... is that we're not
   'button pushers' so we have to be in the mode of complete
   aural understanding.... Everybody wants to have
   the balance of hearing and having the creativity ... but
   singers have to start with a much, much more developed
   ear first.

Students' experience appears to reflect this as well. When asked the question "how are you learning the language of jazz?" Jade answered: "It kind of just happen[s]. I just listen, really, really well, and practice improvising on Aebersold-type things [play-along recordings] a lot. It's not even that my knowledge of the theory is very good, it's just listening."

Consider a simple exercise. Ask an instrumentalist to play a D-Dorian scale. Knowing the basic theory behind the scale (say, "it's the notes of a C-major scale, played from D-to-D"), an instrumentalist can play it in the air, without accompaniment, likely without any concern or hesitation. Do they need to hear each note in their head? No. Theory-plus-fingerings is enough to do the trick. Superimpose some melodic contour overtop and you have instant (if shallow) modal improvisation.

Now, ask a vocalist to do the same. First off, the vocalist will likely need a pitch reference. Next, they will have to think carefully of each interval as they sing it. Where are the whole-tones and semitones? What is the unique flavour of the scale, the raised-and-lowered pitches that make it Dorian? Without physical fingerings to refer to, the concept of "it's the notes of a C-major scale, played from D-to-D" is almost meaningless. They need to hear and understand the flavour of the scale, and the intervallic relationships therein, quite deeply, in order to execute it.

Now, consider an opposite exercise: melodic playback. Imagine an instructor playing short melodic phrases, which the students must play back immediately. Instrumentalists often struggle, first to find the key or key centre (unless it is articulated in advance), then to find the fingerings necessary to execute the melodic idea. They may be able to hear the idea, but may not be able to execute it instrumentally. However, a vocalist will likely sing it back right away, flawlessly. They don't need to know the key centre: it is irrelevant to the physicality of their instrument. There is no "translation" phase of hearing-finding fingerings-playing. If they can hear it, they can likely execute it. However, give them something harmonically complex, or intervallically unusual, and the vocalists will struggle equally with the instrumentalists. As soon is it is "beyond their ears," it is beyond their ability.

In my own study, I can attest to the different requirements of the vocalist and instrumentalist at the conception stage. As a vocalist, I decided to spend some time learning the diminished scale, a subject relatively advanced for an instrumentalist, and something few vocal improvisors perform. I was already familiar with diminished scales and chords as a pianist, and used them regularly in my improvising. However, singing them was a different matter: the intervals felt unnatural, I couldn't access the knowledge when improvising, and couldn't execute them well when I did. The instrumentalist-side of me understood the theory and application well enough, and I had learned the fingerings and patterns to work through them easily. But it turns out that I didn't truly hear them in my mind's ear: without this, the vocalist in me was left far behind, and much work was needed to both truly hear, and execute, these ideas.

What does this tell us for vocalists? Quite simply, the conception stage is all about the ears. Theoretical knowledge is still necessary, of course: without it, they won't be able to notate ideas, or communicate them effectively to each other or to their bandmates. However, the theoretical knowledge is next to useless unless it is fully understood through the ears.

Ear-training in music programs typically consists of common exercises such as intervallic recognition, melodic dictation and transcription, and chord/chord quality recognition. Often these are passive "listen and identify" exercises. While these are all useful, I have discovered, primarily though my own in-class experimentation, but also through textual analysis, a number of other exercises that are helpful to vocalists.

One of the most crucial elements for vocalists is the ability to hear chord progressions and larger key centres in standard repertoire. One simple in-class exercise is to play a chord progression on the piano and ask the students to sing the root of the perceived key centre. These chord progressions can start with simple I-IV-V type progressions, gradually adding ii and vi chords, then adding tritone substitutions (substituting the V7 of a V7-I progression with the chord a tritone away: G7-C becomes Db7-C, for example), semitone-away ii-V movements (a common harmonic enrichment in jazz: for example, Em7-A7Ebm7-Ab7-Dm7-G7-C), et cetera. Put another way, the vocalist's job is to "find home," harmonically speaking. One can start with simple progressions, than venture further and further away from home, and see if the vocalists can find their way home again.

In addition to this, it is helpful to hear, out-of-context, other chords and intervals within these chords. An example:

* play a brief chord progression

* "sing me the key centre"

* "sing me the root of the IV chord"

* "sing me the 3rd of the V chord"

* ... and so on.

The students' responses to these ear-training exercises should be sung, not written or verbalized. The point is to connect the theory directly to the ear, and then to the voice.

In my classes, I found it helpful to have the vocalists sing the roots to each chord. Vocalists are naturally attuned to hearing melody, but are not always accustomed to hearing bass notes or root movement , and singing bass lines helps strengthen the understanding of a harmonic progression. Having some vocalists sing the roots, and others the melody, all a cappella, is especially useful.

Weir also discusses a more ear-based form of basic improvising skills. Rather than getting into chord-scale relationships early on, as instrumentalists would at the conception stage, she suggests starting with "root-based improvising." An extension of the bass line exercises above, this simply involves instinctive "noodling" around the roots of each chord, discovering by ear what does and doesn't work, all along following the chord progression.


The approach to achieving facility in the jazz language on an instrument is well-known: practice, practice, practice. Learn licks and patterns in twelve keys. Learn songs in twelve keys. Practice ii-V-I progressions ... in twelve keys. It is a highly-mechanical process, not unlike an athlete constantly training to build muscles. The overarching goal is to build a strong enough connection between the mind, the ear, and the hands, in order to be able to execute ideas as fast as they can be thought up. It is a lifelong process, and every instrumentalist understands (or at least should) that this process is a long and arduous one. They don't call it "paying your dues" for nothing.

This process is very different for the vocalist ... at first glance. The vocalist's blessing--and curse--is that they can sing what they hear: not much less, but certainly not more. As demonstrated earlier, this requires much more work for the vocalist at the conception stage, in particular with regards to ear training.

The vocalist has an advantage at this stage. at first. The ". in twelve keys" mantra, while not irrelevant, is certainly less important and arduous. An instrumentalist may have to deal with different fingering for each of the twelve keys: while a vocalist has to develop facility in different parts of the vocal range, each key doesn't necessarily "feel" different from another. In short, a vocalist can often find themselves off-and-running at the early stages of improvising, singing melodic lines as they hear them, while the instrumentalist is still stuck in the woodshed.

But, this early sense of ease is a double-edged sword. Several of the expert interviewees commented, independently, that this seeming advantage can lead to a reduced work ethic for the vocalist. Jennifer Barnes says:

      Singers have to start with a much more acutely-developed
   ear, first, and to get to that point, I think, is
   a very difficult road. Most vocalists don't realize how
   heavy the dues are to get there, and that is why most
   of them don't end up paying the dues that they need to,
   to get there.

The general consensus seems to be that singing, at first, is easier. While an instrumentalist needs a certain work ethic and discipline to be merely competent, a vocalist can go quite far simply singing what they hear. However, the jazz language is complex, and once improvisation in the language becomes a goal, many singers find themselves at a loss to reach it. How do vocalists work through this stage of the process, then, and how is it different? This answer can be divided into two rough categories: passive practice and active practice.

Every interviewee mentioned "listening to and singing along with solos" as a main mode of practice: Weir considers this important enough that she recommends that it take up to 50% of a student's practice time. Once again, this method demonstrates the primacy of ear-based learning for the vocalist: they can get much farther with just listening and singing along that an instrumentalist who also needs to work out fingerings and other technical aspects.

When it comes to the active part of practicing, the answers start to look much like the standard practice routines for instrumentalists. Weir refers to "repetitive lick singing: a 1,2,4-bar lick, drill. Twelve keys, every day, so it's 'brainwashed' into them," This approach could be taken from any instrumental method book. Peter Eldridge says: "I do believe in patterns to build clarity in working through the changes. Arpeggiated patterns are a great way to ... make it more concrete for the young singer ... to get to something a little more pure than. scat-syllable jargon."

As for instrumentalists, transcription is considered a key element to learn both vocabulary and style. In the case of a vocalist, the exercise is especially important for an "ear-based instrument," as Christine Duncan calls the voice. Plus, when transcribing a vocal solo, the vocalist has timbre, syllable choice and other deeper nuances to consider.

Both Weir and Kristin Korb place special emphasis on working through transitional harmonic points. Weir refers to "working on 'boundary points,' or the bumpy parts of a particular song, at the piano." Korb talks about "going between two chords at a time, finding my tendencies and figuring out options to get myself 'out of the corners.'"

Although it is difficult to precisely quantify, it appears that "passive practicing" is given a higher emphasis that would be recommended for instrumentalists, who presumably need more time to physically manifest the vocabulary into the fingers. That said, the importance of "paying your dues" is something that most respondents made sure to emphasize.

Every expert respondent, without exception, considers the piano a necessary part of learning vocal improvisation, and the learning of elementary piano skills as a basic requirement for vocalists. Bob Stoloff says:

      Playing the piano has made a 100% difference in
   my melodic/harmonic improvisation. Both visual and
   aural experience of playing chord progressions, scales,
   arpeggios and both traditional and jazz patterns has
   illuminated the creation of lines over harmony which
   can be transferred to the voice, or vice versa.

When asked the most important things for students to learn, Weir starts with: "Number one: play piano. it helps fantastically. I always have my students play piano." Herself a pianist, Weir considers it important enough that she devotes a chapter of her vocal improvisation book to offering a crash-course on basic jazz piano voicings.

Eldridge, also a pianist, says: "Even if it's really rudimentary piano skills, it just gives you concrete, palpable information to get things started." And as a pianist myself, I would agree with all respondents. The non-pianist experts (Duncan, Korb, Barnes) equally agree, and all play piano to some extent.

As for the students, Violet finds the visual aspect of the piano useful, as well as its role in creating melodic content: "I learn a particular line and when I recall it, I also visually recall playing that shape on the keyboard." Rose finds it helpful from a visual perspective and also as a source of musical grounding: "I sometimes picture the keys on a piano when I'm learning/sightreading a new tune. It helps me stay in tune and distinguish one pitch from the other."

The general consensus is that piano knowledge offers both obvious and more in-depth benefits for the vocalist:

* Unlike an instrument, the voice offers no pitch reference: practicing with piano offers such a reference. Students can practice a cappella to ensure true accuracy, but along the way, the piano can keep them honest.

* The piano is a visual instrument, whereas the voice isn't. "Seeing" scales, voicings and arpeggios can offer the student another way of absorbing the information, particularly if they are visual learners.

* The piano offers a tactile reference to intervals, notes, and melodic shapes. Intervals can be "felt" in the voice as a form of muscle-memory, but this usually happens at a more advanced level. Even then, the piano can offer a much clearer physical representation of these various shapes.

* Piano offers a clear harmonic reference for the more essential elements of ear-training for vocal improvisation: hearing chord progressions and key centres.

Of course, the piano is a challenging enough instrument to play, even more so if it is the secondary instrument. No instrumentalist would be asked to play two "instruments" simultaneously and expect to develop on either. In my classroom teaching, when faced with more difficult piano work such as playing through chord progressions, I found it useful for students to work in pairs: one at the piano and one singing, changing places frequently. This allows both students to work on voice and piano, a bit at a time, and on ear training, all of the time.


At this stage, the methods for the vocalist and instrumentalist more or less converge. Aspects of the language are understood intellectually and, especially for the vocalist, aurally. The mechanics of the language are in the fingers for the instrumentalist, and muscle-memory of patterns and other building blocks are absorbed by the vocalist. At this point, the main goal is re call and access in the moment, and this is achieved primarily by (at long last) the actual real-time process of improvising over chord progressions.

The vocalist has one small advantage at this stage: they carry their instrument everywhere they go, and don't require use of their hands to practice. Barnes and Korb both mention practicing in the car, singing over changes while driving: something ill-advised for a saxophonist, for example. At this stage, if the proper dues-paying work ethic has been established, vocalists can find many more opportunities to practice, even in non-traditional practice settings.

It should be noted that this three-stage process is not nearly as structured or as linear as represented. It is highly fluid: application often happens simultaneously with imprinting, and further conception-style insight continues while at the application stage. Many of the imprinting processes might happen with early-stage application, such as the process of learning a single standard, and identifying and drilling certain patterns over certain points in the song. And of course, these processes tend to concern specific aspects of the language, rather than the language as a whole: Students can be applying one set of concepts, imprinting others, and beginning to absorb still others, in the same period of time.

This whole enquiry began with two fundamental questions: "how do vocalists learn differently?" and "what do vocalists need to learn the jazz language?" From the answers and observations above, we can come to some general conclusions:

* The voice is an ear-based instrument, it is "invisible," and has very little clear physical representation in the manner of an instrument. Therefore, advanced ear training is essential to achieve a comparable level of proficiency. Advanced ear-training activities, such as hearing chord progressions, being able to sing roots and bass lines, and identifying and singing various chord tones and functions, form an essential part of the conception process.

* Given the primacy of ear-based knowledge, vocalists need a larger proportion of "conception phase" work as compared to their instrumental counterparts.

* The imprinting stage, while largely a mechanical process for instrumentalists, still involves as much listening as mechanical work for the vocalist. That said, it is crucial at this stage to develop a discipline for the type of repetitive drill-based work familiar to instrumentalists. To get past the stage of singing easy-to-hear, harmonically simple melodic ideas, the vocalist needs to put in the same kind of work expected of an instrumentalist.

* Developing basic piano skills are a necessary part of the process. Piano skills provide a harmonic context for vocalization, and they provide a visual and kinesthetic connection to the melodic and harmonic content being absorbed by the ear and the voice. Moreover, piano provides a point of intersection, a common ground, for how instrumentalists and vocalists learn and communicate the jazz language.

With these basic conclusions in mind, educators can now develop a more effective method of study for the aspiring vocal jazz improviser.


Barnes, J. (2013, April 20).Written Interivew. (D. Bell, Interviewer) Denton, Texas.

Duncan, C. (2013, March 28).Written Interview. (D. Bell, Interviewer) Toronto, ON.

Eldridge, P. (2013, April 28).Written Interview. (D. Bell, Interviewer) Denton, TX.

Korb, K. (2013, April 30). Written Interview. (D. Bell, Interviewer) Copenhagen. Rhiannon. (2000). Flight: Rhiannon's Interactive Vocal Guide to Improvisation. [Rhiannon, Performer] Boulder: Sounds True.

Snidero, J. (1999). Jazz Conception: 21 Solo Etudes for Scat Singing, Jazz Phrasing, Interpretation, and Improvisation. Germany: Advance Music.

Stoloff, B. (1996). Scat! Vocal Improvisation Techniques. Brooklyn: Gerard and Sarzin.

Stoloff, B. (2013, March 27). Written Interview. (D. Bell, Interviewer)

Ward-Steinman, P. M. (2008). Vocal Improvisation and Creative Thinking by Australian and American University Jazz Singers.

Weir, M. (2001). Vocal Improvisation. Los Angeles, CA, USA.

Weir, M. (2013,March 31). Written Interview. (D. Bell, Interviewer) Los Angeles, CA.

In a word ... multifaceted, Juno-nominated Dylan Bell's musical curiosity keeps him effortlessly crossing musical boundaries, Dylan has sung with many of Canada's premiere vocal ensembles such as Cadence, Hampton Avenue, and Retrocity, When he's not singing, he freelances as a keyboardist and bassist, working with artists from classical violinist Lara St, John, to world-music's Autorickshaw, to veteran rockers Honeymoon Suite, Behind the mixing board, Dylan has produced or engineered several award-winning albums, including albums by the world-renowned UK artists The Swingle Singers, and the a cappeiia legends The Nylons. Dylan's work as a composer and arranger has garnered international recognition, and his vocal arrangements and choral compositions are sung worldwide from Arnpriorto Zurich. Dylan's published work includes a definitive work on a cappella vocal arranging, co-written with Deke Sharon and published by Hal Leonard. Dylan isalso in demand worldwide as an instrumental teacher and vocalclinician. Visit Dylan at
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Title Annotation:music makers: jazz
Author:Bell, Dylan
Publication:Canadian Music Educator
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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